On Saturday morning, he got up before dawn, as was his custom, to find Jane downstairs, dressed in yoga clothes and standing on a purple yoga mat, instead of on the upstairs landing where she usually practiced.
Damn. Sweat broke out on his forehead. If she was going to do all that downward-dogging stuff in front of him, wearing those stretchy black leggings and looking all sexy and bed-rumpled, he was going to have to go back into his room and take care of his lusty impulses in the most basic way possible.
That’s when he saw the second yoga mat. This one was blue.
She sat cross-legged, patted the blue mat with the heel of her hand, and crooked a finger at him.
He held up both palms, shook them and his head.
She nodded, keeping crooking that cute little finger. “C’mon.”
He continued to shake his head, but he walked over. Why was he walking over?
She hit play on the boom box that sat on the floor beside her, and new agey, girly spa music curled into the room with some chick singing something about only time will tell.
“Nothing difficult this morning,” Jane said. “Just breath work. It will help you relax. We’ll progress to poses later. Breath work is called pranayama.”
As if he gave a crap. But he found himself sitting down on the mat beside her.
She gifted him with a soft smile that melted all his resistance. The woman was like the ocean, beautiful, calming, and forceful as hell.
For the next half hour, she led him through a series of breathing exercises that left him tingling from his scalp to his toes and his lungs feeling clearer than he’d felt in years. Hey, maybe there was something to this yoga mumbo-jumbo.
“You did so well.” Her eyes lit up. “I’m proud of you. We’ll do this again tomorrow.”
He bobbed his head. Christ, Hutchinson, knock it off. You look like a freaking bobble head.
“If you keep practicing, yoga will work miracles in your life, I promise.”
He didn’t know about that, but he did know that her addictive smile hooked him, and he wanted more. Had to have more. And hey, maybe she was right. Maybe this breathing stuff would calm his mind, and calming his mind would release tension, and releasing tension would get him speaking again.
“I have two massages to give this morning,” she said. “But when I get back, we’ll take the kids to Dickens on the Square.”
She returned at noon. He had the kids dressed warmly and he braced himself for battling the town square thronged with tourists and townsfolk alike. They had to park in overflow parking half a mile away from the square and walk.
Hutch’s stomach tightened every time someone greeted him. A lot of people who wanted to talk to him, thank him for his service, ask how things were. Whenever he could, he tried to get away with forced smiling and nodding. The task of telling dozens of people that he could not speak was exhausting, and it made him feel like a shadow of his former self. He saw the pity-filled glances and that’s-such-a-shame shake of heads, and he hated it.
After a while, sweet little Ben started doing the job for him, saving him from pulling out that damnable Magic Slate each time by automatically telling everyone who approached, “Unca Hutch can’t talkeded.”
The kid was quickly headed up near the top of the list of Hutch’s favorite people.
After about an hour, Hutch started to loosen up and enjoy the event as he saw it through the children’s eyes. He’d long forgotten what it was like to possess such an openhearted sense of wonder.
They took the kids on pony rides, Kimmie screaming with frightened delight as the pony moved beneath her. They ate street food—roasted turkey legs, corndogs, sausage on a stick, soft doughy pretzels, and hot roasted nuts. They drank lemonade and hot apple cider and finished off the meal with the best fudge he’d ever eaten. Local merchants were dressed in Dickensian clothing. Beefeaters and London bobbies strolled the sidewalks. They shook hands with Scrooge and Marley, Tiny Tim, Miss Havisham, and Oliver Twist. Kimmie and Ben had their faces painted and then they all participated in the Scrooge Scavenger Hunt, where everyone received a prize. The kids won coloring books and crayons.
It was a perfect day, and by the end of it, the mood between him and Jane shifted again.
On the way back to the minivan, they took a shortcut through Sweetheart Park. The children raced ahead of them, playing tag, the sound of their running footsteps and high-pitched giggles echoing throughout the park.
Twilight sewed up the sun, and quaint, faux glass lanterns came on as they wandered down the path side by side. The urge to take her hand was so great that he had to stuff his hands into the front pockets of his jeans.
While keeping the kids in their line of sight, they crossed the wooden footbridge spanning a fingerling tributary of the Brazos River. As they neared the end of the bridge, Jane’s shoe caught on a rough section of planking, and she lost her balance. Before Hutch could grab for her, she tumbled over the railing to the water below.
Instead of a splash, he heard a soft thump, and Jane cried, “Oh!”
He peered over the edge of the bridge to see she had landed on a wheeled wooden platform covered in red carnations. Someone must have parked it under the bridge after the morning’s parade.
Laughing, she peered up at him, wide-eyed. The impact of her sudden weight caused the back of the float to tilt forward sharply and carnations rained down in flush cascades, blooming the front of the platform with red, fluttering petals, the flowers dripping into puddles at the corners, kissing her body with crimson blooms, coloring her ebony hair and pale skin with dark cherry froth until only her eyes and cheeks peeked out at him.
What were the chances? What were the odds that a cart of foliage would be there to catch her when she fell? In that moment, the float embodied the spirit of Christmas and everything it represented—generosity, kindness, love—and she was at the heart of it, the creative font from which all goodness sprang.
It was a romantic thought. Poetic. And totally out of character for man who spent his life steeped in war, struggle, and strife, but something came over him like an out-of-body experience. It was she. Meredith was the one who lifted him to heavenly heights, the one who raised him from the mire of base human behavior. He had no name for what he was feeling because he’d never experienced an emotion like this.
Transfixed, he cocked his head, studied her, saw radiant delight in her eyes, saw the flowers move up and down on her in waves as she breathed, and it took every morsel of willpower he had not to race down to the water’s edge, haul her from the cart, and kiss her.
“Mommy!” Ben called, breaking the sweet silence of the simple now. “Where are you?”
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